Moving Towards Common Ground

Police chiefs and community leaders from around the country met with their peers from leading National Network cities last week to explore the National Network’s concept of “Racial Reconciliation and Police Legitimacy” in violence prevention. Supported and hosted by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) at the Department of Justice, the meeting was organized to highlight the National Network’s ideas around openly addressing long-standing grievances and misconceptions between the most crime-stricken communities of color and the law enforcement agencies that serve them.

Directly engaging racialized conflict between such communities and police has been an integral part of the National Network’s drug market intervention strategy (DMI) since it was first pioneered in a neighborhood of High Point, NC in 2001. Based on past experience in this and other DMI sites, the National Network has found that when these grievances are addressed openly, and new and different understandings emerge, a profound transformation in community-police relations is possible. Community norms against violence and crime clarify and strengthen as tensions with law enforcement ease, and those norms can carry much of the burden of crime prevention. As a result, the serious public problems of violent crime and mass incarceration can be addressed simultaneously.

It is the intent of the National Network to map this process onto the citywide implementation of its group violence reduction strategy (GVRS), with a number of its Leadership Group sites already taking first steps in this direction. In August last year, Chicago Superintendent Garry McCarthy, whose department started implementing GVRS in 2009, led the charge by speaking out publicly about the importance of addressing in particular African American history in the context of violence prevention. Since then a growing number of police chiefs and community leaders have expressed interest in exploring and addressing this crucial issue and welcomed the COPS Office’s invitation to meet with National Network’s practitioners seasoned in the work.

Following welcoming remarks by COPS Office Director Bernard Melekian, Superintendent McCarthy spoke to the group about his change in thinking around racial reconciliation and police legitimacy since starting to work with the National Network during his time as Police Director in Newark, NJ. National Network co-chair David Kennedy presented on the theory behind the racial reconciliation process, stressing that he is “not in possession of a new, independent analysis of race in America” but that the concepts under discussion had to be viewed through the very narrow lens of violence prevention in specific settings. In National Network sites that had made this process part of strategy implementation, communities and law enforcement had come to see that they misunderstand each other in very important ways; both have been contributing to harms neither desires; both want, in crucial areas, fundamentally the same things; and there is an immediate opportunity for partnership that can benefit everyone involved in very concrete ways.

Yale law professor Tracey Meares, a member of the National Network's Executive Board, expanded on Kennedy’s presentation by laying out the current state of research on police legitimacy and explained why enhancing legitimacy can produce better, cheaper and longer-lasting crime reduction outcomes than the threat of formal sanctions. In the afternoon sessions, National Network partners, including law enforcement and community leaders from a range of cities, presented to the group how they operationalized the ideas of reconciliation and police legitimacy in their agencies and communities.

The second day of the conference was a closed session of the National Network's Leadership Group. Participants focused discussions on advancing the police legitimacy and racial reconciliation work in their respective communities. The National Network and its partners will continue developing this important element of strategy implementation in the months and years to come.